President Donald Trump has not derailed civilization or its leadership. Not yet, anyway. We would do well to remember that evolution always meanders. There are reasons for guarded optimism.
LET’S assume for the moment that despite our mad-king president, we will succeed in either, A) avoiding a constitutional crisis, or B) surviving it because of our institutional strength. What then are we left with? Is there basis for hope in light of President Donald Trump’s destructive, Orwellian leadership ways?
More than six months in, Trump is proving to be the most transactional and the least transformational president in U.S. history, particularly in contemporary leadership terms. “Transformative leadership” refers to leaders who are explicitly focused on improving lives by virtue of developing individuals who in turn transform society — culturally, technologically and in terms of social systems. As Pulitzer-Prize winning historian James MacGregor Burns puts it, the transforming leader “seeks to satisfy higher needs and engage the full person of the follower.”
Uh, OK, that clearly is not Trump.
On the other hand, conventional transactional leadership is focused on a momentary exchange of mutual self interest. There’s no sense of higher needs involved. At its most acceptable, it seeks a balanced quid pro quo. You give me your vote, say, and I’ll give you tax reform. At its worst it’s about using power to get what you can for yourself while the getting is good: Me and mine are what matters, the rest of you can pound sand. That sounds more Trumpian. And while most of Trump’s efforts have proved feckless, transactionalism is the only thing he understands. He is the quintessence of low-level transactionalism.
Yet, if we can avoid vertigo and keep this manic presidency in perspective, we can identify reasons for optimism.
First, Trump and his more craven backers are giving transactional governance an unforgettably bad name. They are doing to transactional leadership what even the Great Recession (driven as it was by transactional business at its most cynical), could not do, revealing it to be a soulless, primitive worldview.
The tawdry nature of extreme transactionalism, whether the temporary vulgarity of an Anthony Scaramucci or a brazen ban on Muslim immigration, is on full display for all to see. Witness U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell’s health-care humiliation. At the very least that legislative defeat represents a dismissal of transactionalism run amok — tax cuts for the super rich in exchange for millions thrown off health insurance. U.S. Sen. John McCain’s almost gleeful thumbs-down on his own party’s legislation was not just a finger in Trump’s eye. In the steady hands of U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, it was also a dramatic rejection of technocratic transactionalism at its most feverish.
Or consider Trump’s ham-handed anti-transgender tweet “legislation.” Who would have imagined Orin Hatch, the arch conservative Mormon senator from Utah, rushing to defend the humanity of our transgender troops? But he did. And as much as he was defending their rights, he was also running headlong from Trump’s pandering transactionalism.
An even greater reason for confidence comes from recognizing how few and far between our transformative political leaders have actually been. Certainly our greatest presidents have been what Burns would call transforming. But surely not all, not even most. Nestled in between the Washingtons, Lincolns and FDRs are a bounty of ordinary, transactionally-minded leaders who sought at best to maintain, never to transform (Fillmore, Taft, Hoover, et. al). So while Trump’s transactional emptiness is extreme, it doesn’t necessarily spell our leadership doom.
What’s more, evolution has always found a way — and the transformative mandate is intrinsic to social evolution. The larger evolutionary flow, in fact, may even be quickening its pace.
In the business arena alone, led by women, minorities, millennials and not a few middle-aged, balding white guys, a more humane way of leading has taken hold. Stakeholder Theory, Integral Leadership, Conscious Capitalism, B-corps and other new schools of thought boast a very different basis for achieving sustainable success in the workplace, the community, the environment, and surely in government and politics.
And these “new” leaders are pragmatists as much as they are idealists. Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, and Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, are not business lightweights. Ohio’s Republican governor, John Kasich, and California’s Democratic governor, Jerry Brown, are not political hacks. All four are shrewd, effective executives. They just have a greater capacity to see the big picture and an increasing capacity for pragmatic compassion.
So Trump has not derailed civilization or its leadership. Not yet, anyway. We do well to remember that evolution always meanders. It’s not guaranteed. These reasons for optimism, then, are not reasons to relax. Our highest values, leadership and otherwise, are under assault as never before. We must incline toward vigilance. But some perspective suggests we can stand with optimism, inspired by what is still unfolding — a higher form of leading and governing, deeply rooted in the very idea of America.